Whatever happened to the psychologically-complex, ‘difficult’ male solo artist? In the ’70s and ’80s, you couldn’t move for them – Peter Gabriel, Peter Hammill, Lou Reed, David Bowie, John Cale et al.
Reed and Cale particularly seemed to dwell in the murky corners of the male psyche, chronicling alcoholism, jealousy, sexual deviance, anger, loneliness, death. The latter’s Music For A New Society, released 35 years ago this month, was a case in point. An interesting companion piece to Reed’s own 1982 The Blue Mask, it sometimes seems too personal for public consumption. Cale was clearly in a pretty bad emotional state during recording.
The album’s certainly not for everyone – a lot of it’s not for me – but a few tracks still sound like modern classics. Recorded at New York’s Skyline Studios, it features a novel production style; Cale apparently tracked most of the songs with a full band (including Chris Spedding on guitar), then strategically stripped back the instrumentation, ‘playing’ the faders a bit like a dub producer. The result is a sparse, claustrophobic listen.
‘Thoughtless Kind’ and the superb ‘I Keep A Close Watch’ benefit greatly from this approach. The latter of course featured a very ornate production on Cale’s album Helen Of Troy, but this time sticks to grand piano, Hammond organ, fake harpsichord, snare drum, bagpipes and a few found sounds.
On ‘If You Were Still Around’ (featuring lyrics by Sam Shepard), ‘Damn Life’ and various other tracks, Cale sounds almost beyond help. But the standout for me is the poignant ‘Taking Your Life In Your Hands’. Online theories abound as to the song’s subject matter, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s about a school massacre and the sacrifices made by the teachers and ‘gentlemen in blue’ who saved lives. The last chorus, when Cale’s assembly-hall piano kicks in, is heartbreaking. A dark masterpiece by a sometimes superb chronicler of human nature’s murkier aspects.